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The Role and Influence of
Environmental and Cultural Factors
on the Academic Performance of African American Males

Part 3 - Learning From Students and the Schools
that Serve Them Well

by Pedro A. Noguera
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera.
Pedro A. Noguera, Ph. D is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

Learning From Students and the Schools that Serve Them Well

Fortunately, there is considerable evidence that the vast majority of Black students, including males, would like to do well in school (Kao and Tienda 1998; Hauser and Anderson, 1991). Additionally, there are schools where academic success for Black students is the norm and not the exception (Sizemore 1988;Edmonds 1979). Both of these facts provide a basis for hope that achievement patterns can be reversed if there is a willingness to provide the resources and support to create the conditions that nurture academic success.

In my own research at high schools in northern California, I have obtained consistent evidence from students that most Black students value education and would like to succeed in school. In response to a survey about their experiences in school, nearly 90% of the Black male respondents (N=147) responded "agree" or "strongly agree" to the questions "I think education is important", and "I want to go to college". However, in response to the following questions: "I work hard to achieve good grades" and "My teachers treat me fairly", less than a quarter of the respondents (22% and 18% respectively) responded affirmatively. An analysis of just these responses to the survey suggests a disturbing discrepancy between what students claim they feel about the importance of education, the effort they expend and the support they receive from teachers (Noguera 2000). Similar results were obtained from a survey of 537 seniors at an academic magnet high school. In response to the question "My teachers support me and care about my success in their class", African American males were the least likely to indicate that they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement (see chart #1).

Chart #1 -- My teachers support me and care about my success in their class"
Strongly Agree 8% 12% 24% 36% 33% 44%
Agree 12% 16% 42% 33% 21% 27%
Disagree 38% 45% 16% 15% 18% 11%
Strongly Disagree 42% 27% 18% 16% 28% 18%

Similar findings regarding the discrepancy between expressed support for education and a commitment to hard work have been obtained by Rosalind Mickelson (1989). Her research findings have led her to conclude that some Black students experience what she refers to as an "attitude-achievement paradox". For Mickelson, the reason for the discrepancy is that while many Black student say they value education, such an expression is little more than an "abstract" articulation of belief. However, when pressed to state whether they believe that education will actually lead to a better life for them, the Black students in Mickelson's study expressed the "concrete" belief that it would not. Mickelson concludes that the contradiction between abstract and concrete beliefs toward education explains why there is a discrepancy between the attitudes expressed by Black students and their academic outcomes.

While Mickelson's findings seem plausible I think it is also important to consider how the experiences of Black students in schools, especially males, may result in a leveling of aspirations. If students do not believe that the adults who teach them care about them and are actively concerned about their academic performance, the likelihood that they will succeed is greatly reduced. In the Metropolitain Life annual survey on teaching, 39% f students (N=3,961) indicated that they trust their teachers "only a little or not at all". It is even more telling that when the data from the survey was disaggregated by race and class, minority and poor students indicated significantly higher levels of distrust (47% of minorities stated that they trusted their teachers only a little or not at all, and 53% of poor students) (MetLife Survey 2000). Though it is still possible that some students will succeed even if they do not trust or feel supported by their teachers, research on teacher expectations suggests that they generally have a powerful effect on student performance (Wienstein). Moreover, there is research which suggests that more so than other students, the performance of African Americans is influenced to a large degree by the social support and encouragement they receive from teachers (Ladson-Billings, 1994; Foster 1997; Lee 2000). To the extent that this is true, and if the nature of interactions between many Black male students and their teachers tends to be negative, it is unlikely that it will be possible to elevate their achievement without changing the way in which they are treated by teachers.

However, there are schools where African American male students do well, and where high levels of achievement are common. For example, a recent analysis of the academic performance indicators (API) of public schools in California revealed that there are twenty-two schools in the state where Black students comprise 50% or more of the student population which have aggregate scores of 750 or greater (1000 is the highest possible score) (University of California Report of Black Student Achievement). Most significantly, when the test score data for these schools was disagregated on the basis of race and gender, there was no evidence of an achievement gap. Though schools like these are small in number (there are over 2000 public schools in California), the fact that they exist does suggest that similar results should be possible elsewhere.

For years, researchers who have studied effective schools have found that such schools possess the following characteristics: 1) a clear sense of purpose; 2) core standards within a rigorous curriculum; 3) high expectations; 4) commitment to educate all students; 5) safe and orderly learning environment; 6) strong partnerships with parents; 7) a problem solving attitude (Sizemore 1988; Murphy and Hallinger 1985). Though the criteria used to determine effectiveness relies almost exclusively on data from standardized tests and ignores other criteria, there is no disagreement that such schools consistently produce high levels of academic achievement among minority students. The fact that success is possible at such schools should prompt us to critically examine those schools where achievement is less likely and to ask why. As Ron Edmonds, one of the leading researchers on effective schools, has stated: "We already know more than enough to successfully educate all students,...the question is whether we want to teach all students." (Edmonds 1979)

Unfortunately, most African American children are not enrolled in effective schools that nurture and support them while simultaneously providing high quality instruction. Since these are the overwhelming majority of Black children, other strategies must be devised to provide them with support even as pressure is exerted upon schools to change. Moreover, even children who have the good fortune to attend good schools will eventually become adults who find themselves working in environments that are less supportive, and perhaps even hostile. These children will also need to learn how to cope with adversity and to navigate the overt and covert forms of discrimination they will encounter.

In several communities throughout the United States, parents are turning to churches and community organizations as one possible source of such support (McPartland and Nettles, 1991). In northern California, organizations such as Simba (a mentoring program for Black males) and the Omega Boys Club, have stepped in to provide African American males with academic support and adult mentors outside of school (Watson and Smitherman, 1996). Organizations like these affirm the identities of Black males by providing them with knowledge and information about African and African American history and culture, and by instilling a sense of social responsibility toward their families and communities (Ampim, 1993; Myers, 1988). Unfortunately, these organizations are small and are largely unable to serve the vast numbers of young people in need. Moreover, it is unlikely that such organizations can completely counter the harmful effects of attendance in unsupportive and even hostile schools. Still, the model they provide demonstrates that it is possible to work outside of schools to have a positive influence on the academic performance of African American youth, and given their relative success, it would be advisable for them to be replicated elsewhere.

Drawing from the research on mentoring and student resilience which has identified strategies that are effective in supporting the academic achievement of African American students (Boykin 1983), community organizations and churches can attempt to compensate for the failings of schools. Through after school and summer school programs, these groups can provide young people with access to positive role models and social support which can help to buffer young people from the pressures within their schools and communities (Boykin 1983). While such activities should not be seen as a substitute for reforming public schools and making them more responsive to the communities that they serve, it does represent a tangible action that can be taken immediately to respond to the need of Black youth, particularly males who often face the greatest perils.

Conclusion: The Need for Further Research

Though I have made reference to the cultural forms, attitudes and styles of behavior which African American males may adopt and produce, and which can diminish the importance they attach to academic achievement, the question of how to influence such behaviors and stances requires much more extensive investigation. Like popular culture, youth culture and all of the styles and symbols associated with it, is dynamic and constantly changing. This is particularly true for inner-city African American youth whose speech, dress, music and tastes often establish trends in youth culture generally, and are constantly subject to change. For many adults this culture is also impenetrable, and at times, incomprehensible. Yet, despite the difficulty of understanding and interpreting youth culture, it is imperative that efforts to help Black youth be guided by ongoing attempts at understanding the cultural forms they produce. Without such an understanding efforts to influence the attitudes and behaviors of African American males will most likely fail to capture their imaginations and be ignored.

I was reminded of the importance of understanding youth culture when I embarked on research on how the popular media influences the attitudes of young people toward violence. In one aspect of this research I attempted to study how young people reacted to violent imagery in films by watching segments of popular movies with groups of middle school students, and discussing their interpretations and responses to the ways violence was depicted. Following a series of discussions focused on the moral and ethical judgments they made about the violence conveyed in the films I had selected, I was asked by the students if we could watch the film Menace To Society as part of the research exercise. To my surprise, several of the students owned copies of the film, and many had seen the film so many times that they had memorized parts of the dialogue. The film, which tells the story of a young man growing up in South Central Los Angeles, is filled with graphic images of violence. After viewing it, I was certain that there might be some truth to the idea that violent films did condition young people to rationalize violent behavior as a legitimate and appropriate way for resolving conflicts and getting what they wanted. However, in our discussion of the film it became clear that most were repulsed by the violence even though they were entertained by it, and that rather than identifying with perpetrators of violence in the film, they identified most strongly with those characters who sought to avoid it (Noguera 2000).

This experience and others like it, made me realize how easy it is for adults to misinterpret and misunderstand the attitudes and behavior of young people. Generational differences, especially when compounded by differences in race and class, often make it difficult for adults to communicate effectively with youth. Many adults are aware of the chasm that separates them from the sensibilities of young people, yet adults typically take actions intended to benefit young people without ever investigating whether the interventions they undertake will meet their needs or respond to their concerns, much less consulting with young people on how such efforts should be designed and implemented. Given the unwillingness of many adults to learn and listen from youth, it is not surprising that many efforts to help youth fail to achieve the results that were sought. Nor is it surprising that adults often make claims about the harmful effects of the music young people listen to or decry the clothing that some wear without ever investigating the meaning that young people attach to these cultural forms.

In addition to research on youth culture, there is particularly a need for further research on how identities - especially related to the intersection of race, class and gender - are constructed within schools and how these in turn affect attitudes and dispositions toward school, learning and life in general. Presently such an analysis is largely absent from the policies and measures that are pursued to reform schools and improve classroom practice. Consistently, the focus of such work is on what adults and schools should do to improve student achievement, while students are treated as passive subjects who can easily be molded to conform to our expectations. Without an understanding of how identities are shaped and formed within schools, and in particular, on the role of peer groups in influencing the academic orientation of students, I believe it will not be possible to devise a theory of action that will enable successes achieved in a particular program, classroom or school to be replicated elsewhere.

Much of what I know about the plight of African American males comes not from research but from my personal experience - growing up as a Black male and raising two sons. I have an intuitive sense that the way we are socialized to enact our masculinity, particularly but not exclusively during adolescence, is a major piece of the problem. Researchers such as Richard majors and Janet Billson (1992) have argued that Black children, and males in particular, often behave in ways that are perceived as hostile and insubordinate by adults. Others (Kunjufu, 1985; Madhubuti 1990; West 1993) have suggested males generally, and Black males especially, have particularly fragile egos and are susceptible to treating even minor slights and transgressions as an affront to their dignity and sense of self respect. Such interpretations resonate with my own experience, however it is still not clear how such knowledge can be used to intervene effectively on behalf of African American males.

As a young man I recall that I often felt a form of anger and hostility that I could not attribute to a particular incident or cause. As a teacher I have observed similar forms of hostility among Black male students, and for the last three years, I witnessed my eldest son exhibit the same kinds of attitudes and behavior. Undoubtedly, some of this can be explained as a coping strategy: Black males learn at an early age that by presenting a tough exterior it is easier to avoid threats or attacks (Anderson 1990). Yet, this thinly veiled rage and readiness for conflict, also has harmful consequences. One of the consequences may be that such attitudes and behaviors have a negative effect upon their academic performance. Adults, especially women, may be less willing to assist a young male who appears angry or aggressive. A colleague of mine has argued that what some refer to as the fourth grade syndrome - the tendency for academic performance of Black males to take a decisive downward turn at the age of nine or ten (Kunjufu 1984; Hilliard 1991) - may be explained by the fact this is the age when Black boys start to look like young men. Ron Ferguson has found in his research in Shaker Heights that Black students were more likely than white students to cite "toughness" as a trait they admired in others (2000). If these researchers are correct, it would not be surprising that teachers who fear their students would have trouble teaching them. Gaining a clearer understanding of this phenomenon may be one important part of the process needed for altering academic trends.

Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that until we find ways to change the attitudes and behaviors of Black males that nothing can be done to improve their academic performance. There is no doubt that if schools were to become more nurturing and supportive that they might be likely to perceived by students as a source of help and opportunity, rather than being seen as inhospitable places that one should seek to escape and actively avoid. Changing the culture and structure of schools such that African American male students come to regard them as sources of support for their aspirations and identities, will undoubtedly be the most important step that can be taken to make high levels of academic achievement the norm rather than the exception.

  • Part 1: Introduction page
  • Part 2: Structural vs. Cultural Explanations

Published in In Motion Magazine February 11, 2001